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Spider Silk: A Modern-day Myth Verified

Susan Du
Hanging on the wall in the newly-renovated African gallery in the Art Institute of Chicago is a bright gold textile woven in traditional Malagasy patterns. Among the ceramic jars of Peru, Congolese ceremonial masks and Navajo blankets dating back centuries, it appears to fit right in. However, this particular textile is actually unprecedented in African art. Lighter than traditional silk yet incredibly strong, this textile is the result of nearly five years’ work by the artists behind it as well as more than a million Golden Orb spiders.

The textile, created by Nicholas Godley and Simon Peers, is the only known spider silk textile in the world. It will be on exhibit at AIC until Oct. 31, and will be taken to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in January 2012.

The Making of the Textile

“It was such a fantasy to do anything like this that it seemed almost madness to even try it,” Peers said in recollection of the early days of working on the textile.

The production of spider silk, originally an idea concocted in 18th century France for competing with Chinese silkworm silk, was last pursued in Madagascar at the end of the 19th century. Prior to the last failed attempt to create a viable industry of spider silk, there were records of only a few notable items made from it. Since then, they have all been lost along with historical techniques for harvesting and weaving spider silk.

When Godley and Peers partnered in 2003 to begin work on reinventing spider silk production, they had little to guide them besides illustration of old devices thought to harness the spider while it is silked. Inspired by the textile culture of exotic Madagascar with its historical flirtation with the Golden Orb spider, Godley and Peers devoted themselves to experimenting with spider silk.

Godley, left, and Peers

“It was a significant challenge on many levels,” Peers said. “You need a lot of silk to make anything and producing enough spider silk for what we wanted to create was more of a challenge than either of us anticipated.”

Godley and Peers’ team manually caught female Golden Orb spiders every morning, making sure to store them separately so they don’t cannibalize each other. Then, workers would extract silk from the spiders by poking a patch on their undersides where their spinnerets are. Silk from the spinnerets would stick to the finger, and the spider would produce more silk as it is pulled.

“It was a colossal, epic undertaking, which is basically why it doesn’t exist out there,” Peers said. “If it were easy, there would be other people out there doing it.”

An Interdisciplinary Art

The spider silk textile may be described as something of a cross between science and art—a historical, anthropological, classical and experimental study in fantasy.

Godley and Peers explained that they could have woven the spider silk into any number of forms and designs—perhaps something more contemporary to reflect the experimental process of creating it. However, they decided to adopt a pattern indigenous to the Madagascar Merina people as a way of paying respects to the island country that captivated and inspired them.

In that way, the textile could pass for work of native Malagasy art at the same time that it would be equally acceptable in a contemporary art gallery. The variety of museums that have been scheduled to host the textile in its trek around the world also speaks to its interdisciplinary nature.

Peers, Jim Cuno, director of the AIC, and Godley

The textile debuted at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, a natural science museum, before being transferred to AIC, an art museum chosen for its prime location in the center of the country and for its timely reconstruction of the African gallery. After Chicago, the textile will journey to the V&A Museum, which features design arts.

Peers summed up the eclectic allure of the spider silk textile by suggesting the use of spider silk alone speaks to the magnitude of the task and the message of the art.

“When Simon says the medium is the message, it’s very true in the sense that the medium is being shown in all these different places, and it holds relevance in all these different venues,” Godley said. “Where all these artworks are pigeon-holed in various categories, this work transcends all those boundaries.”

Phobia and Myth

Godley and Peers said they strove to maintain conceptual purity throughout the making of their textile. The message, they said, depends on what the idea of spider silk means to the individual viewer.

Because many people harbor some degree of fear for spiders, the beauty and luminosity of its golden silk contrast with the way they’re traditionally viewed. Godley said there is something about spiders which sets people on edge, and when they see something beautiful made of spider silk, the juxtaposition creates an interesting dynamic in their minds.

“Spiders are frightening in some ways and in other ways wonders of nature,” he said. “Culturally, there’s a dual fascination of wonder and fear.”

For Peers, the Golden Orb spider itself was an object of inspiration in the making of the textile.

“We were both enthralled by the spider,” he said. “We’re very aware of the effect it has on people. It really turns heads and makes people wonder about what is possible, and it gives us a huge satisfaction.”